Using History’s Negative Spaces

I use the term historical literacy more and more to describe the goals of a history class. The rhetoric of “critical thinking skills” always seemed a little flimsy to me, in part because learning any subject has the potential to increase critical thinking. The adjective “historical” at least implies that there is a set of specific concepts that students can learn from us rather than their chemistry class.

Of course, historical literacy is hardly a term of specificity. Recently, Kevin Gannon warned against seeing historical literacy as a nicer way to describe coverage. A content-based approach to historical literacy seems tied to E.D. Hirsch’s idea of cultural literacy, namely that a course should focus on covering the terms of reference that will be useful to future citizens. Like Kevin Gannon, I’m pretty skeptical of equating literacy with a specific course’s content. After all, having a student memorize the plot of War and Peace would hardly be the same thing as teaching actual literacy.

I see the task of building historical literacy as closer to helping students learn to think like a historian. Rather than spoon-feeding students a set narrative, an instructor tries to help students engage with the building blocks of historical interpretation. Luckily, there are many educators at every level of education that are coming up with creative ways to help students build skills of historical thinking.

Like many other teachers, my approach to building historical literacy usually means inundating students with primary sources. Last year I started using a primary source collection as the main text of my class, and I doubt that I will ever go back to assigning a textbook (although I did use online texts such as the American Yawp as supplemental readings). Assigning a ton of primary sources helps students see the messiness of historical interpretation, a cacophony of viewpoints that don’t fit into a clean narrative.

But shouldn’t teaching students to think like historians also include showing the limitations of historical literacy? Throwing a ton of primary sources at the students can give them the false impression, namely that the main difficulties of historical interpretation come from an embarrassment of riches, a matter of picking which sources to privilege. Truth is, historical research is usually more like trying to get water from a rock.

I have been mulling over how to address the destruction and loss of the historical record in the classroom. Palmyra is far removed from most Americanist research projects, but I doubt that stopped anyone in the profession from being horrified over the last few months. More of the site survived than expected, but archaeologists will spend years figuring out what was lost. The entire episode has raised questions that matter to historians in any field, such as what line separates restoration and fabrication of the past. Historians in every field have to deal with the fact that sources often are lost to war, decay, or just people deciding to throw stuff away. Usually these losses are on a much smaller scale than the destruction of city, but they can limit what we can ask of the past. I, for one, cringe every time I find out about a historical figure that asked that his or her letters be burned after their death.

The silence of the archive is something we are used to discussing in our scholarship, but I would guess the topic doesn’t make its way that often into our classrooms. Since my lessons often focus on slavery, I do discuss in my lectures why historians have had trouble getting at the experience of enslaved people. Still, I don’t have the students really engage with that problem. When I ask them to do readings, it’s of primary sources that do exist.

I really don’t know how we can get our students to engage with absence. I suppose that assigning more research papers has the chance of helping students see the challenges of historical work. However, a research paper sucks away a huge chunk of time from the semester. Often one of the best ways to help students tackle a research topic is to suggest some sources, in other words to steer them away from the false starts that lead to a person seeing the gaps of the historical record.

A better way might be to devote an activity or lesson on the gaps themselves. One could spend a whole thematic lesson on a specific gap, either a marginalized group who is underrepresented in the archive, or about a specific archive or set of records that have been lost. Taking a slightly more counterfactual approach, one could ask a student to describe a historical source that doesn’t actually exist, such as a letter by someone who had his or her letters burned. By analyzing what questions this fictive source could help answer, perhaps students will get a better sense of the hole that actually exists.

What does teaching historical literacy mean to you? Has anyone found ways to incorporate the absences of the historical record into the classroom?


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *